Even the most unscientific of us have a repository of common-knowledge, scientific facts accumulated from media, friends, peers and colleagues. Unfortunately, however, some of these scientific 'facts' are not actually true. Many of these myths are so widespread and persistent in popular culture that despite being consistently dispelled they continue to be passed on with completely convinced sincerity. Here are some of the most common scientific myths that you, or someone you know, may have helped spread at one time or another.
'Fingernails and hair continue to grow after death'
There is something morbidly fascinating about death. As terrified as many of us are of death, we find that we still like to talk about it. This is probably one of the biggest factors that have helped this myth spread. However, it is entirely false. Fingernails and hair do not continue to grow after death. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why some people would think it is true. When we die, our bodies dehydrate thus making the skin and tissue around the nails and the hair line shrink away and recede. As a result, the hair and nails may seem slightly longer. And because we are more accustomed to hair and nail growing rather than skin receding, we are more likely to attribute this change to the hair and nails continuing to grow rather than the hands, feet and head shrinking. This recession creates the illusion of the hair and nails continuing to grow on a corpse when in fact the only thing that’s moving is the skin…and even then, it’s shrinking.
'Men think about sex every ten seconds'
The amount of time between such ‘daydreams’ varies from telling to telling of this popular myth but the point of this particular ‘fact’ is still the same: men are sex-obsessed. However, according to the Kinsey Institute, only 54% of men think about sex at least once per day and about 4% of men think about sex less than once a month. Other studies have suggested that men who do frequently think about sex only have sex on the brain about 10 times per day but think about sleep around 11 times per day. The same study even revealed that men may actually think about food an on an average of 18 times a day. That’s almost twice as often as they think about sex! Although it is difficult -- maybe impossible -- to accurately record the exact frequency of sexual thoughts, it is certain that men don’t think about sex as frequently as other things and certainly not as frequently as once every ten seconds.
'The Coriolis Effect determines the way the water flows down drains'
This myth is one famous example of applying an accurate and established scientific principle incorrectly to an everyday situation. Mainstream media (and even some schoolbooks) have been responsible for incorrectly popularizing the notion that the Coriolis Effect sets the direction that water drains down our bathtubs and sinks. The rotation of fluids (air and water) is indeed influenced by the rotation of the earth and on the scale of hurricanes the Coriolis force can actually be observed causing the hurricane to rotate in the same direction as the underlying Earth. Hurricanes spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere just like the Earth, itself. But, the Coriolis force is incredibly small because the rotation of the Earth is incredibly small: only one rotation per day. Water flowing down a drain might make a rotation every few seconds giving it a rotation rate thousands of times higher than that of the Earth. In fact, the Coriolis force is so many orders of magnitude smaller that it plays virtually no role in determining the direction of rotation of a draining sink. The direction of rotation of a draining sink is determined by the level of the basin, the way water is directed into the drain, the way the basin was filled and other immediate factors.
'The moon has a dark side that never sees sunlight'
Every once and a while you might hear someone talk about the dark side of the moon and the popularity of the phrase (and the song) means that there is plenty of opportunity for someone to draw the wrong conclusion. Part of the reason this popular myth continues to linger on is the fact that we always see the same side of the moon (a phenomenon known as Tidal locking or captured rotation) but it's mostly a problem with terminology. The term 'dark side' is confusing and hence problematic for many people. It leaves the impression that nightfall eternally covers the far side of the moon but, in fact, that's simply not true. Part of the moon is dark at any given time but it's not always the same part -- just as we experience here on Earth. Like Earth, the moon has a daytime and a nighttime meaning that all sides of the moon eventually see the sun rise and fall. A better and more accurate way to describe the side of the moon we see is to call it 'the near side' and the opposite side that we don’t see as 'the far side.'
'We only use 10% of our brains'
It is almost alarming just how popular this myth is. This myth has had a long existence in the public consciousness, partly due to its popularity with psychics and paranormal enthusiasts. Some proponents of this claim even tout that harnessing the remaining 90% of our brain’s power will unlock extraordinary abilities, talents and hidden potential. Aside from the fact that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that we possess hidden talents, brain imagining techniques show that we do indeed use every part of our brain at some point or another. It is true that some cerebral functions use only a small part of our brain at any given time, but that is vastly different from incorrectly concluding that any part of the brain goes unused or is redundant. Every aspect of the brain is needed for one reason or another. Another major problem with this myth is that it suggests that there is a localised area of the brain that is functional and that the remaining 90% is non-essential. This is, of course, nonsense. We are a long way away from truly understanding how it the entire brain works, but we know for certain that we do in fact use our entire brains.
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